Upper Midwestern English: Rich, Distinct, and Getting More So All the Time

By Joe Salmons

Bubbler or Drinking Fountain?

Virtually everybody recognizes a Boston accent in 'pahk the car in Hahvahd Yahd'; we all know that Southerners say 'y’all'; and even without hearing it pronounced, a comment like 'you soooo don’t talk like me' calls to mind the speech of southern California. But what distinguishes the speech of Wisconsin, Minnesota or the rest of the Upper Midwest? I ask this fairly often and people mention words like 'bubbler' for water fountain or maybe' uff da'. Sometimes the answer is “those vowels”, usually with an example like 'boo't or 'boat' with a ‘pure’ (or monophthongal) vowel. Some people notice that 'bag' is pronounced by many speakers with a vowel like in 'beg' or even 'bagel'. When I mention it, many realize that the word 'once' in sentences like 'come over here once' is regionally distinct, and the same holds, to a lesser extent, for how 'with' is used in I’m going to the store. 'Do you want to come with?' But even most people who pay attention and have a really good ear for dialect probably do not realize that we are at the center of many key changes in American English.

Before moving on to that, though, let’s quickly slay a misconception: Many people are convinced that the linguistic sky is falling on dialect diversity, that broadcast media and other pressures are killing (or have already killed!) regional differences in our speech. In fact, just the opposite is true, as detailed in a whole body of scholarship over recent decades (see also here [http://www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/home.html]) . How can this be? In part at least, it’s because we identify ourselves when we speak, socially, regionally, ethnically, and in other ways. It seems that we tend to develop and share common patterns of speech with those we associate ourselves with and when/where we want to fit in: I’ve certainly (and largely subconsciously, in spite of being a linguist) changed many of my southern speech habits over a decade of living in Wisconsin, in part not to stand out every time I speak. This cuts the other way too, of course: folks raised in the Northwoods, for instance, might want to make clear that they are not like the tourists who come from the lower Midwest, and speech is one natural way to do that.

This kind of linguistic identification and demarcation is happening in myriad ways, large and small, across the continent and many involve Wisconsin directly. For example, spreading from the west is a change where the vowels in pairs of words like 'caught' vs. 'co't or 'Dawn' vs.' Don' are now pronounced the same. This has largely made its way across Minnesota and spread into some westernmost parts of Wisconsin, while beyond our southern border it has long been established across northern Illinois and Indiana. Coming from the opposite direction are vowel changes known among linguists as the ‘Northern Cities Shift’, which have come from upstate New York across the Great Lakes into southeastern Wisconsin and as far as Madison. This ‘chain shift’ begins with a change in the vowel of 'bad' becoming more like 'bed' or even 'bid' and includes a set of others, like 'milk' coming to sound like 'melk'. One of the later parts of the chain is the pronunciation of the vowel in words like 'hockey' much like 'hackey', now a stereotype of Chicago English.

Despite being in the middle of so much change, our region has been largely ignored in research until very recently. The big exception to this is a national treasure housed at the UW-Madison: The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), founded by the late Frederic Cassidy (who also did an extensive Wisconsin English Language Survey in the early 1950s). DARE, of which four volumes are out and the fifth is coming, naturally defines and describes regional words, but the reason I can’t put down a volume without great effort is all the cultural and linguistic context you can learn about those words, not to mention rich connections to immigration, history, botany and biology. While it’s national in scope, it contains remarkable things about our region: look up 'ainna'/'inso', 'bismark', 'hodag', 'jack pine' and 'sea foam' and even a native Wisconsinite is bound to learn something. And it’s used not just by people interested in regional English, but professionally by forensic linguists to help identify writers of ransom notes, physicians to help identify regional/folk terms for ailments, psychiatrists to interpret results of standardized tests such as the Boston Naming Test, and lawyers for judging the spread of words for copyright cases. (DARE is a partner with CSUMC and the Max Kade Institute on our “American Languages” project and their latest highlight is providing material for the Robert MacNeil video-documentary "Do You Speak American?").

While Joan Hall, Luanne von Schneidemesser and the staff at DARE are moving “on to Z!”, as Cassidy used to say, we now have a set of new linguists working on English in and around Wisconsin. Bert Vaux (Foreign Languages & Linguistics, UW-Milwaukee) is even carrying on the DARE tradition of massive dialect surveys, and you can contribute to the database by participating in his latest survey, and he’s looking at new differences, like what we call automatic teller machines. He’s also working on another survey of linguistic and cultural phenomena particular to Wisconsin, like 'bubbler', 'soda' vs. 'pop', 'butter burger', etc., trying to determine the extent to which dialect boundaries align with other cultural patterns like Friday fish fry and being a Packer fan.

Tom Purnell (Linguistics, UW-Madison) is tracing the vowel changes noted at the beginning of this piece in one stream of his research and looking at how people seem to pronounce 'z' sounds like s at the end of words, as in the 'Saturday Night Live da Bears skits', together with Jennifer Mercer (German, UW-Madison) and Dilara Tepeli (Phonetics, Universität Bonn), (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m part of that project too). Mary Rose, writing a dissertation in Linguistics at Stanford University, has found links between certain pronunciations and Wisconsin cultural traditions like dairy farming and playing cards. For example, retired dairy farmers often pronounce ‘o’ like “ow+uh', as in 'bow+uh+t' boat. You may have heard people using ‘d’ instead of ‘th’, as in 'dat' or 'dey', a feature of speech in many American communities. In rural eastern Wisconsin, it probably comes from the influence of Dutch and German. Mary found that big time players of sheepshead, a ‘real Wisconsin game’ brought over from Germany, also show pride in their German heritage by using using ‘d’ often.

The dialect studies just described focus directly on how people talk. Erica Benson (English, UW-Eau Claire) is working in the new area of ‘perceptual dialectology’, which fills out that traditional picture with information on where nonlinguists think dialect boundaries lie, how people from other areas talk, and what associations speakers have with other dialects. As she’s argued in a recent paper in American Speech, those perceptions give us new information on how people WANT to identify themselves socially and regionally. Given the role of social factors in dialect change mentioned above, this kind of work supplements traditional dialectology in a critical way.

Of course, even all this new activity barely scratches the surface of linguistic variation here, but people are working to understand a broad range of issues, including the rapidly increasing ethnic diversity of English in the Upper Midwest: Becky Roeder at Michigan State is looking at the speech of Mexican-Americans in Lansing and to what extent young people in that community are participating in the Northern Cities Shift (mentioned above), while Bert Vaux is looking at similar questions with regard to African-American speech in the Milwaukee area and Tom Purnell is investigating how listeners identify (or fail to identify) the ethnicity of speakers. A ton remains to be done, with more coming all the time.

Joseph Salmons is Professor of German at UW-Madison and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midewestern Cultures.




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